Mediocre leaders focus on having their teams perform carefully proscribed functions for pay. But those companies that excel, those that create extraordinary results in the challenging world of business, are those whose leaders raise the bar to exceptional heights with aspirational ambitions. Aspirational ambitions are established by smart leaders who understand the nature of people. They know that creating something beyond the ordinary requires focusing people on the extraordinary.
According to Harvard psychologist Dr. Daniel Gilbert, “The human brain is an ‘anticipation machine’ and ‘making the future is the most important thing it does. (We) imagine objects and episodes that don’t exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future…”
As Dr. Gilbert says, everyone visualizes the future. We can’t help it. It is wired into our brain. We use this anticipation machine to visualize possible scenarios all day long: “What will my manager say if I do x? How will my employees react when I tell them y?”
Successful leaders leverage this natural power of the mind for their purpose. Rather than letting employees imagine the worst or imagine the future they want, great leaders create a desired future for their teams they are leading. And then consistently focus on it.
It is simple to leverage this innate imagination if you know these 3 keys:
1. Focus the Team’s Brain as One on One Thing
Tish, a Fortune 200 energy executive, and her leadership team had a great year: They met their results in a high pressure, fast-changing business climate. But because of the rapid change, they had no time to rest on their laurels.
She had to get her team refocused for the next year, so she created an aspirational ambition with her team. This is a powerful tool to focus the minds of executive teams to raise performance. During a team event I led with them, we had the team identify one thing that if accomplished, would elevate their performance. After much debate and discussion, they agreed upon the rally cry of “Amp it Up.”
Given they are in the energy business, this was quite clever! To them, it meant to have courage to do more, take more risks, and have more excitement about their work. Then we discussed, “How will we know in 4-6 months if we are successful with “Amp it Up.” The specifics became the aspirational ambition.
A few months later I asked her how it was going. She replied “We use the aspirational ambition all the time. We use it in the closing salutation of our emails. We bring it up in phone conversations. It helps us stay focused and push ourselves to have more courage to get higher results. More importantly, the Executive Board is really pleased with our results.”
The rally cry, “Amp it Up,” gave everyone on the team the same future to aspire to. It was easy to implant these few words in everyone’s brains so they can keep imaging the desired future of more courage and more action. This then led them to take more risks and get more done.
2. Create an Image of Success
A picture IS in fact worth a thousand words. Physiologist Edmund Jacobson was the first to discover that consistently visualizing a physical skill works to “teach” the muscles what to do. The most famous study was one where a group of basketball players visualized making baskets and did better than other the players who practiced. Images work similarly with teams. Focusing on an image of future success will help the team achieve success.
An executive in charge of a new technology department leveraged this knowledge in a departmental retreat we ran for them. We focused on one thing: the aspiration of the department. We had groups of people create collages of their desired culture. They used magazines and glitter and pipe cleaners. They had a GREAT time. They leveraged the power of the brain by focusing 80 people on images of success. And it was fun. But even better, after the 8 groups shared their collages, we took it beyond visualization to visualizing action.
We had the department brainstorm projects that they could do to make the visualization a reality. They thought up dozens of ideas about how to create the new culture. Then they voted with their feet and chose the projects that they liked the best. They formed teams and created action plans. They ended excited and focused. They followed through on these action plans and enabled the department to create a new, more engaging culture.
3. Emotions Rule
Over the past 20 years, I’ve read many books and articles on visualization. Ever since I was a child I wanted to know all the ways there were to succeed in life. Visualizing success is one of those strategies that comes up time and again, from Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs. The book that I have found that most clearly explains how visualization works is Liberating Greatness, by Hal Williamson. The answer he shares is that visualization works because of emotional memory.
A key part of memory is emotion. Without emotion, we wouldn’t remember anything. With all the experiences we have in life, we don’t remember everything. We most easily remember events and situations that have strong emotions tied to them: happy occasions like weddings and vacations as well as very sad events like deaths and disappointments. The emotion is like a “tag” that tells the brain to remember.
Both of the previous examples of aspirational ambition leverage emotional tags. Both teams were engaged in a positive, fun experience when they created their aspirational ambition. The result is therefore rooted in positive emotion. So when they are reminded of what they did by their leader, or remember it themselves, it will be easier to retrieve. And it will have a positive association making it more likely to motivate them to follow through on the vision.
The need for a new focus is ongoing. New challenges in the business environment, new people, new competition. The process of increasing team performance never ends. Teams can and should reflect regularly (at least every 6 months) on their challenges and what aspirational ambition will enable their next great achievement.
To learn more approaches to achieve breakthrough results with your team, download our new guide The Power of Swing: 30 Days to Your Leadership Breakthrough at http://teamsofdistinction.com/powerofswing/ .